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Coming Home

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers left the city when the pandemic struck and spent months living elsewhere. What did they learn?

Credit…Jan Feindt

  • Jan. 1, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

They fled east to Long Island, west to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, north across New England and south to Florida, seeking freedom of movement and safe shelter anywhere the virus wasn’t yet raging like an out-of-control fire. Between March 1 and May 1, as the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit New York, about 5 percent of the population, or 420,000 New Yorkers, left the city, according to cellphone data analyzed by The New York Times.

Who fled and who didn’t mostly divided along race and class lines. In wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, SoHo and Brooklyn Heights, the residential population dropped by 40 percent or more. While blocks with median household incomes of $90,000 or less saw little movement.

But New York exerts a gravitational pull on its residents, rich or poor. For many who left, it was the longest period they had ever been away from their homes in the city. And while confusion reigned in those early days (and does still), time and distance conferred perspective.

Shaken from their pre-pandemic routines, those who fled found themselves re-examining their urban lives. Did they still want to live in New York? Evidently, a good number did not. Many discovered, or rediscovered, activities like baking, gardening and padding around a home bigger than two rooms. All who left faced shaming on social media. If you weren’t holed up in your apartment listening to the sirens wail outside, you weren’t a real New Yorker.

Ten months on, many of the displaced have since returned to the city — though how many is hard to quantify, and some may leave again as case numbers and hospitalizations spike. Since their experiences echo those of a lot of people in this unsettling, up-in-the-air time we find ourselves, it seemed worthwhile to talk to some of them. To find out where they went, what life was like there and what, upon reflection, they learned about their homes, their domestic lives and their feelings toward New York.

Many wealthy New Yorkers retreated to cushy vacation homes in communities like the Hamptons and Palm Beach, but many had more modest experiences. They left behind cramped apartments to stay with family or friends in the suburbs or rented Airbnbs, absurdly cheap early in the pandemic because of plummeting travel.

Bryan Mealer was living with his wife, Ann Marie Healy, and their three young children on the Upper West Side, near Union Theological Seminary, where the former journalist is a seminary student. “We had this small apartment,” he said. “We didn’t want us all in there like scorpions in a jar.”

After he saw the lines at the grocery store, Mr. Mealer went into “dad-survival mode,” he said, loading the family minivan. “I packed all the food we had. I packed all the medicine. I grabbed the fireproof box with our passports. We drove through New Jersey and I bought one of those things for the roof that you can put more crap in.”

Purva Bedi, an actor, stayed put the first month of the pandemic. On March 20, her mother died, possibly from Covid-19, and she wanted to stay close to her father, who also lives in the city. Then Ms. Bedi, who shares a three-bedroom in Harlem with her husband, David Stoler, and their two children, accepted a weekend invitation to her sister-in-law’s house near Albany.

“It was an intervention,” Ms. Bedi said. “When we arrived, David’s sister said, ‘We have a secret agenda.’ She wanted us to stay there for two weeks, quarantine and move in with my mother- and father-in-law, in Troy.”

Molly Chanoff had access to a family beach house on the Jersey Shore, a space vastly larger than the 450-square-foot apartment that she owns and shares with her 4-year-old daughter in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. She mentioned the beach house to neighbors down the block — a husband, a wife and their two children. The wife’s sister is a doctor in Seattle so she had the scoop on the virus.

“They were, like, ‘We need to get out of here!’” Ms. Chanoff, a performer with LAVA, an acrobatic dance troupe, recalled. “Ten hours later, we rented a car and packed up. We thought, we’ll be gone for two weeks, max.”

It was the closing of the schools that caused Leah Vickers, an attorney who also lives in Prospect Heights, to leave town. She and her husband, Ethan Hartman, were parenting two children under 5 years old while both working full-time from home and “we were just getting crushed,” Ms. Vickers said.

Her parents still live in the home where she grew up, a big Victorian in Sea Cliff, on Long Island. It beat quarantining inside a 700-square-foot, toy-filled two-bedroom.

For others, there was a randomness to where they ended up, as if they had drawn a location to ride out the crisis from a hat.

On the weekend of March 13, just as Mayor Bill de Blasio was flirting with a stay-at-home order, Viviana Spiers and her husband, Rich, who live in Hell’s Kitchen, decided to celebrate their youngest son’s 6th birthday in Atlantic City, a destination they chose because, as Ms. Spiers put it, “the hotels were dirt cheap.”

All weekend, “Rich and I were stressed out about what we’re going to do,” said Ms. Spiers, who works for a Manhattan-based venture capital firm as an office manager. “Should we go back to New York City? It seemed so bad. At the end of the weekend, we just kept driving.”

They ended up in Lynchburg, Va., for no other reason than it was on the way to Houston, where Ms. Spiers had family. Compared to New York, Lynchburg felt laid-back and relatively virus free. They rented an Airbnb, took their two sons to Dollar General for toys, settled in.

Mr. Spiers moved to America from his native England, and spent years as a self-employed music agent and concert promoter, before the virus torpedoed his business. The pandemic seemed to bring out the rambler. “Possessions and such don’t mean anything to me,” he said. “It’s that tour mentality where you just leave with a grocery bag. Just move.”

Mr. Mealer, the seminary student, drove his wife and children 1,700 miles to Texas, where he grew up and where the family had lived before New York, only to find upon arrival that they had nowhere to stay. His parents lived in Texas, but what if he unwittingly gave them the virus? The same concern extended to friends. Eventually, the family found a rental house well outside Austin.

“There was a little land behind the house. We had no neighbors. We weren’t seeing anybody,” Mr. Mealer said. “That was our little sanctuary. We stayed out there for two months.”

Out in the hill country, Mr. Mealer had spotty internet and no cable. After years of constantly working and traveling as a journalist, and then studying all weekend in seminary, “it forced me to slow down and be with my kids,” he said. He went on nature walks with his three children, sat around a fire pit at night, reconnected. By summer, the family had changed locations again — driving north to Minnesota, where his wife’s father was suffering from dementia. His father-in-law died while they were there.

For Mr. Mealer, the upheaval and loss clarified his priorities. “I wore the same clothes for five months,” he said. “For the kids, we ended up cutting their pants into shorts as it got warmer. You realize none of that stuff is important. Our health is important.”

Many who fled similarly lived out of a suitcase for months like nomads, and felt newly unburdened. It was extreme Marie Kondo: clothes, books, furniture, houseplants, photos and other mementos — everything they owned — abandoned in some parallel reality back in the city.

“All my life, I’ve had this feeling of, ‘If there was a fire, what would I grab?’” Ms. Bedi, the actor who moved in with her in-laws, said. “That list has become very short. What do you really need? Each other.”

In March, Vicente Munoz and Audrey Rose Smith packed some weekend bags for what they thought was a short stay with friends in Connecticut. They didn’t return to Brooklyn for five months.
Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

Audrey Rose Smith and her husband, Vicente Munoz, had left their apartment in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, in mid-March, packing some weekend bags to visit a friend’s house in Connecticut.

“We went on a whim: Things were beginning to feel a bit scary and we wanted to get out of the city for a few days,” Ms. Smith said. “The irony is, we didn’t come back.”

A sales assistant at David Zwirner Gallery, Ms. Smith enjoys fashion and dressing, but in quarantine, she wore the same Carhartt pants to the point where they became heavily tarnished, something a shopkeeper commented on when she was out one day.

“She was like, ‘I love your pants. How did you create that hombre effect?’” Ms. Smith said. “I was totally stunned.”

She added: “There’s something freeing about having nothing to get dressed for, when you’re not dressing in a performative way as you do in New York.”

Clothes were the only possessions Ms. Chanoff missed while staying at her family’s beach house. Wearing colorful, bright, unusual pieces had become “a part of my identity,” she said. But as a single mother, she also found herself living as a family of six for four months.

“The commune life as a single mom is awesome,” Ms. Chanoff said. “I had help with daily tasks. I could take a bath.”

The Spiers’ also found life outside New York more tolerable than they had once imagined it. “Before this pandemic, I was the type of person where after three days, I need to get back to New York, to be with straightforward people,” Mr. Spiers said.

But, he and his wife reasoned, pandemic New York, with the Broadway theaters and music venues shuttered and the streets lifeless, wasn’t really New York. What were they missing?

After a month in Lynchburg, they did the previously unimaginable — they began house hunting, and not long after, closed on a house. They held onto their apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and planned to travel between Lynchburg and Manhattan by Amtrak.

“We made sure we got a house with a basement apartment that we can rent out,” Mr. Spiers said. And, he reasoned, they weren’t straying too far: “Virginia feels like you’re halfway in — you’re not pushing it. As New Yorkers, this is the furthest south you can go.”

Feelings of guilt and a vague sense that by leaving, they had abandoned the city in its time of need, seemed to nag at the displaced.

Mr. Mealer: “I felt really helpless being there in Texas.”

Ms. Spiers: “I’d speak to friends who were still there and think, ‘If I consider myself a New Yorker, I should be there contributing to the local shops. I need to go back.’”

Out on Long Island, Ms. Vickers, the Brooklyn attorney, got a taste of the suburban life she had left behind. Her children walked the same nature paths and shoreline as she had. The family had space to stretch out. Ms. Vickers’ uncle in Florida died of Covid-19 and her aunt was in the I.C.U. for several weeks, and so she felt deep gratitude for her parents, their house and the comfort it provided.

Ms. Vickers found herself scrolling through Zillow listings, imagining an alternate life in small-town America. But, “We really did miss the energy and diversity of the city,” she said. The end of summer and reopening of the schools, however tentative, seemed to her a good time to go back.

Others returned in September as well.

Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

For Ms. Bedi, re-entry was deeply strange and “like walking off a cliff,” she said. “We were holding the trauma of what April felt like in September.”

She added: “To walk into one’s own home after five months away, it was a feeling I’ve never had before. That’s my bed, and it’s been empty for five months. My home felt foreign, yet completely intimate and my home.”

In July, Mr. Mealer returned to an apartment “preserved in amber.” There were dead flowers in a vase on the kitchen table. The fridge calendar listing the family’s appointments was still turned to March. Mr. Mealer kept it as a reminder of all they had been through. “This calendar is life before Covid,” he thought. “This is how much life has changed.”

One big change was the family’s address: They moved to New Jersey.

Before, Mr. Mealer said, he and his wife used to have tortured conversations about where they should live, anguishing over what was the best place. The pandemic removed such angst.

“We rented a house sight unseen,” in Montclair, he said. “The first week we were, like, ‘We’re going to buy plots in the cemetery in New Jersey and never leave this place.’ It’s not important to us where we live — it’s fine.”

For Ms. Smith and Mr. Munoz, who came back to Brooklyn in September, the time away only reaffirmed their identity as New Yorkers. While Ms. Smith felt liberated at times by being away from her things and everyday life, Mr. Munoz, a visual artist and designer, missed their apartment and the objects in it, including a chair he’d designed shortly before the pandemic. The prototype arrived at his apartment while he was away, and throughout the quarantine, the chair was a reminder of his creative life back in the city.

“It was missing the sunlight of the apartment, missing the aesthetic and objects that we created in the home,” Mr. Munoz said. “The idea of a city, of a congregation of like-minded people, that was stronger for me than the solitude of taking as many hikes as you want.”

Returning to her old life, Ms. Vickers was at first overwhelmed: “I was, like, ‘There’s stuff everywhere. Are we hoarders? We need to change this all up.’ Within a week, we adjusted to the fact that that was not going to happen.”

She described the scene on a recent weekday afternoon: “Right now, my 5-year-old is in her bedroom doing remote schooling, our nanny is at the kitchen table with our 2-year-old, my husband is in our bedroom where we work two feet from each other and I’m pacing around the apartment trying not to interrupt what everyone else is doing,” she said, adding, happily, “It’s chaos.”

Credit…Adam Macchia for The New York Times

As the months rolled on, the Spiers had no regrets about impulse-buying a house in an unfamiliar community 400 miles from the city. With the second (or is it third?) wave hitting New York, causing cases numbers to surge and lockdowns to return, they felt vindicated in their decision to have an escape hatch.

“The most valuable thing for me is mental well-being,” Mr. Spiers said. “This will be our permanent plan B.”

When Ms. Chanoff came back to her tiny one-bedroom, in September, she had all the anxieties about getting or transmitting the virus, but she also had concerns particular to her, and to New York real estate. She had spent three months in a beach house that slept 16 comfortably.

“I was scared of feeling claustrophobic after being around these wide open, beautiful spaces,” she said.

But a New Yorker’s living space, she discovered anew, extends into the neighborhood. “It felt like Prospect Park was everybody’s backyard,” Ms. Chanoff said. “People were outside. It was alive in a way that felt really special.”

She had moments when she thought about giving up on the city, like many of the displaced. But in the end, Ms. Chanoff said, “I feel committed to being here. I’m tickled that my daughter is a Brooklyn girl.”

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